Fr. Russo requested me to write a brief bulletin series regarding sacred music in the Holy Father's apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum caritatis. The first of these will appear this weekend, the following two in the next weeks, so, dear readers, you get a preview of them. I am reprinting them here in their bulletin format, so you will see the bold-face title at the start of each article. Enjoy!
SACRAMENTUM CARITATIS: On February 22, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum caritatis. The document discusses a range of topics, one of them sacred music. The holy Father writes:
The liturgy is inherently linked to beauty: it is veritatis splendor…In
Jesus we contemplate beauty and splendor at their source. This is no mere
aestheticism, but the concrete way in which the truth of God’s love in Christ
encounters us, attracts us and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves
and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love…Beauty, then, is not
mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since
it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation (35).
We are reminded of much by the words of the Holy Father, that the beauty of the liturgy has nothing to do with us personally, for indeed the liturgy is not at all about us personally, but rahter about Christ and his sacrifice for us. Beauty in the liturgy has been misunderstood by many who seek an encounter with Jesus on their own terms in order to fulfill some pre-supposed need or desire. An approach that seeks to fabricate beauty much like selecting paint and drapes for a bedroom. Beauty is not accidental, but essential to the liturgy, for Beauty is an attribute of Christ himself. Contrary to the cliché, Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. It is not relative, but absolute. So often we approach Holy Mass as we might a group therapy session to be caressed and affirmed by music, or kind, encouraging words “shared” in a homily. When our expectations are not met, we claim the Mass “had nothing for us”. The truth of the matter, however, was that our own expectations blurred our ability to encounter and be encountered by Beauty. We were called to our true vocation, love, yet we were so distracted by our own noise, we failed to hear the call. When invited to the birthday party of a friend, we should not arrive expecting the other guests should shower us with gifts. What profound disappointment awaits, were this our hope. What selfishness! The liturgy is Christocentric, that is, centered upon Christ. There is nothing we can possibly “get out of the Mass”. Imagining there is or should be is a manipulation of the nature of the liturgy which removes or renders inaccesible its inherent, absolute Beauty which is Christ. Christ exhorts us to “Come, follow me”. Beauty exhorts us to follow and to be ecountered in the process by God’s love in Christ. We must come willingly to the encounter with Christ’s love, leaving behind any personal notions, preferences or expectations. As human beings our perception is narrow and incomplete. God’s vision is just the opposite. He knows what it is we need. Our own suffering can not be compared to His own, who bore the sins of the world. Absolute Beauty pervades the liturgical action, and when we disentagle ourselves from our own wants, we are drawn into it and by it, we encounter the peace which surrpasses all understanding.
SACRAMENTUM CARITATIS: The Holy Father comments further regarding the celebration of Holy Mass, particularly that the Mass does not conform to popular culture:
Since the eucharistic liturgy is essentially an actio Dei [action of God]
which draws us into Christ through the Holy Spirit, its basic structure is not
something within our power to change, nor can it be held hostage by the latest
trends. …Saint Paul's irrefutable statement applies: "no one can lay any
foundation other than the one that has been laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor
3:11)…The celebration of the Eucharist implies and involves the living
Tradition. The Church celebrates the eucharistic sacrifice in obedience to
Christ's command, based on her experience of the Risen Lord and the outpouring
of the Holy Spirit. (37)
Pope Benedict’s comments make plain that the liturgy is nothing of our own making. It is through the activity of God himself whereby we encounter the living Christ, the very foundation of our worship. To be a Christian, and especially a Catholic Christian means oftentimes to be counter-cultural. That is, the Church and her worship do not conform to popular culture -- the liturgy, the Pope observes, can not be held hostage by the latest trends. Thus, Roman Catholic worship, the Mass in the Roman Rite, does not reflect “current fashion”, neither in language nor music. It does not arise from the norms of popular culture nor should it be manipulated to reflect them. This is a challenge to many who wish to worship in a manner which reflects the secular world in which they conduct their day-to-day business. The secular indeed exercises much influence upon the minds of the faithful, so much so, that it may become an easy temptation to follow its false logic that allows no room for the sacred, but which seeks to envelope it, to distort it in order to make it secular and profane like itself. The result is a blatant disregard for the dignity and reverence demanded by sacred worship – concepts inherently foreign to popular secularism, by which all is reduced to a banal casualness: of language, of human interaction, of dress, of art and music. Just as Christ is not of this world, so too is worship of him – the darkness does not comprehend him. Divine worship, divine liturgy does not and can not by its nature conform to the dictates of the secular. In divine worship, the heavens open as the earth-bound liturgy unites with the heavenly, eternal liturgy. Only in the Mass of the Roman Rite do the faithful encounter face to face the true, living, Christ made manifest before us upon the altar of sacrifice. The offerings of the secular miserably fall short. As regards the Roman Rite, secular forms offer nothing better than the sacrifice of Cain, grossly inadequate for worship of so great a God. To introduce secular forms, concepts, and styles into the Roman rite alienates the faithful from the two-thousand year old living tradition of the Church. This is not a matter of personal taste, but a matter of obedience to Holy Mother Church in keeping with her instruction regarding sacred worship, instruction handed to the apostles in unbroken succession from the earliest days. We are called as Catholics to spread the Gospel, in essence, to make sacred what is secular. By insisting on a manner of worship more in keeping with secular forms and styles, we work against ourselves, making exception in the very place where no exceptions should be tolerated. We willingly secularize our sacred worship in sacred space by failing to excerise modesty of dress and by failing to excerise reverence and modest restraint and by acceptance of such music which mimics or imitates secular genres. Regarding music, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council strongly warned against such forms which distract the faithful from divine worship under the guise of solemnity (Musicam Sacram V, 43). The Holy Father further underscored this instruction in his excellent book The Spirit of the Liturgy, “sacred and secular music now are known to intertwine…so that the listener perhaps thinks he is hearing some pop tune in his ears. Clearly the danger here: music no longer results from prayer, but leads away from the liturgy, becomes self-serving…the music alienates the Liturgy from its true essence.”
SACRAMENTUM CARITATIS: The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI comments upon sacred music in his apostolic exhortation of February 22, 2007:
In the ars celebrandi [the art of celebrating], liturgical song has a
pre-eminent place.... In the course of her two-thousand-year history, the Church
has created, and still creates, music and songs which represent a rich patrimony
of faith and love. This heritage must not be lost. Certainly as far as the
liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another. Generic
improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the
meaning of the liturgy should be avoided…Consequently everything – texts, music,
execution – ought to correspond to the meaning of the mystery being celebrated,
the structure of the rite and the liturgical seasons. Finally, while respecting
various styles and different and highly praiseworthy traditions, I desire, in
accordance with the request advanced by the Synod Fathers, that Gregorian chant
be suitably esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy.
Pope Benedict makes three main points: the importance of the heritage of Roman Catholic sacred music, the importance of careful selection of sacred music to accompany the celebration of the sacred mysteries, and the pre-eminence of Gregorian chant in the sacred music repertoire. Roman Catholic sacred music arises not only from Holy Scripture, but is linked by tradition to the ancient music of the early church, finding its basis in the music of Hebrew temple worship. Catholic sacred music did not appear from a vacuum. Its origins are clearly traceable from the ancient Israelites to chant forms, to polyphonic music of two and more voices, unison and multi-part hymns and canticles arising from Scriptural models, to contemporary motets and choral works building upon and developing from the tradition of Renaissance polyphonic masters. It is important to note that what is referred to here is not the development of secular song forms, but specifically sacred music forms. In the progression of music history, secular forms develop alongside sacred forms, sometimes, as today, intertwining. When the sacred takes on such attributes of the secular so as the two can no longer be differentiated, the difference traditionally has been pointed out and the correction made. This was true of the parody Masses of the Renaissance, it was true before the Motu Proprio of Pope St. Pius X, and it is true today as contemporary pop styles threaten once again to blur the limits between the sacred and the profane. The Holy Father does not skirt the issue as many have by claiming music is merely a matter of taste. Certainly, he instructs, we can not say that one song is as good as another. “Praise choruses” and much of what we blithely term “contemporary Christian” music has arisen outside living liturgical tradition of Roman Catholicism, and as such, does not comprehend the liturgical seasons and less so the concept of religious mystery. Finding its origins in non-Catholic, non-liturgical surroundings, devoid of mystery, stripped of tradition, often lacking any distinct creed or body of doctrine, the “contemporary Christian” genre is hardly a perfect match for the celebration of the Mass in the Roman Rite. Although often fitted with Scriptural texts or Scriptural paraphrases, the style of music or nature of the paraphrases are not in keeping with the reverence and dignity demanded by the celebration of the Mass in the Roman Rite. It is a music which in form and style falls short of the profound mystery inherent to Holy Mass. Instead of deepening true devotion and expounding upon sacred mystery, it detracts from the celebration, making itself the focus as a means whereby the faithful are caused to succumb to a primitive emotional response. Sacred music within the Roman Catholic context must enhance worship, enabling a deeper participation in the transcending sacrifice of Calvary made real and present to us in the Holy Mass. Music of the Praise and Worship genre by its very nature is designed as a “stand-alone” worship experience within a context of an assembly of non-Catholics who have no Mass, who have no Eucharist, indeed, who have no Christ, risen and fully present to them Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Music fit for an emasculated, secular God, who can not communicate with his people, who is present to them only in vague symbols: a cross without a corpus, a church year without Advent, Lent, without Christmastide, without Eastertide, indeed also without Pentecost. Use of such music within the Roman Catholic context is in the strictest sense impossible. Holy Mother Church offers the faithful the complete revelation of Christ. The Holy Father concurs with the Synod Fathers that the true proper music for the Mass in the Roman Rite is Gregorian chant. The Church has known this for centuries, hence her two-thousand year history of music which is organically connected to chant, a succession of musical composition which still continues today. Secular religious music is not suitable for use to accompany the Roman Rite. It is entertaining, religious music, but it is hardly sacred music.